Co-operators worldwide were invited to discuss the theme Deepening our Cooperative Identity at the 33rd World Cooperative Congress (WCC) in December 2021 in Seoul, Republic of Korea. WCC is the flagship event of the International Cooperative Alliance, which was first convened in 1895, and the 33rd edition was only the second time it took place out of Europe, 1992 Tokyo being the other.
Ahead of the Congress, the ICA organized two preparatory research-based events, with the aim to add further critical thinking and evidence-based arguments, to the thematic discussions at the Congress which was convened to mark 125 years of the ICA. The two events were the ICA Cooperative Research Conference themed on the various sub-themes of the Congress, and the 3rd International Forum on Cooperative Law which was organized by Ius Cooperativum Association with the support of the ICA through its global Thematic Committee on Cooperative Law, on the theme: Identity of Cooperatives and the Harmonization of Cooperatives Laws. Match or Mismatch?
The joint session on the events’ conclusions was organized on 30 November 2021 in the Vista Hall of the Walkerhill Hotel in Seoul, and was chaired by Prof. Ann Hoyt, who was stepping in for Dr. Martin Lowery, Chair of the ICA (Board) Committee on the Cooperative Identity and the Task Force of the 33rd WCC. The rapporteurs who represented the various sessions of the research-based events at the conclusion session were Prof. Sonja Novkovic, Chair of the ICA Committee on Cooperative Research, Dr. Paola Raffaelli, Lund University, Ms. Camila Carabini, University of Milano Bicocca, Mr. Paul Kang, Sungkonghoe University, Dr. Maria José Ruiz-Rivera, UCLouvain and Prof. Hagen Henrÿ, Chair of the ICA Committee on Cooperative Law. Santosh Kumar, ICA Director of Legislation, and Ms. Sarah Jensen coordinated the preparatory work for the session.
Summary of Proceedings
Prof. Ann Hoyt introduced herself as an emeritus professor from the University of Wisconsin Madison in the United States, and as Board Chair of the Group Health Cooperative, USA. She began by thanking the people that were involved in setting up and participating in the two research-based events, and invited Dr. Novkovic to make first comments and start the process of presenting the readings of the sessions as well as the original ideas that emerged from researchers who presented their work.
Dr. Novkovic thanked the Congress for the opportunity to share her findings from the session and made a special mention to the participants of the Young Scholars Progamme. She added 190 papers were submitted to the conference and 80 people participated in person, 50 presenters were able to present their work in person and 100 persons presented their work virtually through the Congress’ internet-based platform. Many more joined online to participate in the discussions that followed. She added that some of the presented papers will be included in the next edition of the Review of International Cooperation, and that a special edition of the Journal of Cooperative Management was also slated for release in February 2022.
Prof. Hagen Henrÿ took the floor and informed that 33 papers were presented on the topics concerning cooperative law. He introduced the International Forum on Cooperative Law as a biannual event which was one of a kind forum to deliberate on cooperative law, and that the next edition was expected to take place in Africa. He also informed all about the International Journal of Cooperative Law which had published three volumes and that the 4th was slated for publication in 2022.
Dr. Hoyt thanked Prof. Novkovic and Prof. Henrÿ for their introductions and also informed that Prof. Patrick Develtere of KU Leuven, Belgium was unable to participate due to unforeseen circumstances. She then introduced Dr. Paola Raffaelli, Representative of the Young Scholars Programme (YSP) of the ICA Committee on Cooperative Research and requested her to introduce the YSP and share her reading from the sessions she was reporting on.
Dr. Rafaelli introduced herself as a postdoctoral fellow at the Lund University working on cooperative innovation and entrepreneurship, and introduced her fellow rapporteurs Ms. Camilla Carabini, PhD student at the University of Milano, Bicocca, Italy, Mr. Paul Kang, researcher at the Sungkonghoe University and Dr. Maria José Ruiz-Rivera, PhD from UC Leuven and lecturer at the Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales in Ecuador. Rapporteurs presented their finds per the Conference’s four thematic lines.
ICA Cooperative Research Conference
The Cooperative Identity
The reporting session began with Ms. Carabini who said the cooperative identity had proven to be solid and adequate to providing benefits to those who participate in cooperative enterprises. Despite the fact that many challenges were still to be met, the core cooperative principles and values provided great solutions for many people around the world when they encounter favourable environments. What did emerge in many sessions was that a key feature of the cooperative identity was they are ethical enterprises - Cooperatives were businesses that were centred on people and were based on principles and values. She continued that the word “solidarity” was repeated the most during the Conference and that scholars claimed it was at the core of the cooperative identity, and that cooperation was to be seen as a practice of solidarity. She further added that it was by performing ethical political solidarity, that cooperative members could subvert the market rationale of profit maximisation. Solidarity was also an important tool for building partnerships and networks with institutions, organisations, and other social movements. What distinguished the cooperative identity was that it promoted active and genuine participation in decision-making processes. As far as democratic values were concerned, the concept of trust between members of one cooperative and their realisation of being part of the same global movement was also key to strengthening the cooperative identity. She continued that cooperative governance involved a balance between the democratic power of members and the power of management. Some scholars showed that the quality of the governance improved when the democratic practices were enhanced. Therefore, she said, the cooperative identity should continue to stress the importance of its democratic values. Membership participation was also a key topic in cooperative governance, and co-operators should restate that, members were the protagonists who built a participatory system, promoted the culture of member participation and that finding new incentives and rewards for member participation was a critical task for the future of cooperatives. Concerning political autonomy, some speakers highlighted how cooperatives were agents of radical political action and the promotion of peace. However, it was also mentioned that it was urgent to decolonise the cooperative identity. This, she said, emerged in different sessions, where scholars spoke about going beyond the formal definition recognised through the legal frameworks and rejecting the normative and hegemonic conceptualisation of cooperation. The challenge was to give value to specificities and eternities within our common global identity by recognising practices on the field from different cultures and ideologies. The risk was that otherwise the cooperative identity could become deeply exclusionary. Some speakers also noted the importance of the support of international and public institutions in the support of cooperatives, their identity and heritage. Others highlighted the central role of the State in linking cooperatives at the national and international levels, and for the financial support which in many cases was vital for the well-being of the cooperative sector. In addition, some scholars pointed out the responsibility of the State for fostering cooperatives, as their values and principles were important not only for the organisation but also for the society as a whole.
She continued, speakers also mentioned that cooperative education played a key role in shaping people, the economy, the environment, and society at large, and that, that should be reflected in the cooperative identity. In order to improve the engagement of young people in the cooperative movement, some scholars argued that new cooperative ways of teaching and learning should be promoted to inspire young people to be co-operators of the future. Some noted that education meant to empower the educator, to make education in their own way and in their own context. She added further that some speakers focussed on the importance of bringing together multiple organisations to develop an interactive and engaging curriculum to teach teachers in secondary schools and university about cooperatives as well as to foster the collaboration between universities and cooperatives. Cooperatives should be more engaged in financing programmes and scholarships to promote cooperative education along the different educational steps. She said cooperatives were facing many challenges like individualisation, generation-gap, ageing dynamics of the peer to peer in the digital space, the expansion of inequality under the pandemic, and that cooperatives needed to develop a strategy for building more statistics and to also develop statistics for the creation of an enabling environment that could address value barriers. She concluded by highlighting that a major focus was to be given to the ILO’s concept of Decent Work. Work, she said in the global context was being characterised by increasing unemployment and uncertainty about the future, and that “quality jobs” should become a distinguishing feature of cooperatives. The cooperative identity had proven to be solid brought many benefits for those who participate in cooperative enterprises, and it was nice and useful to be together and re-examine and think about it again.
Cooperative Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Dr. Rafaelli presented the second thematic line which had six sessions dedicated to it. She said the key message of the stream was that cooperative identity was crucial for innovation in cooperatives and also it was a unique business opportunity. However, she added, in a constant changing world, the cooperative identity needed to be adapted to the new environment and the new challenges. Thus, in order to support the development and innovation of current and future cooperatives, a new approach was needed to reach out to entrepreneurs of the future and that, she said involved a new language of being more participatory for entrepreneurs and an inclusive approach to workshops. However, the risk of this was in relation to the contradiction between the cooperative identity and financialization and this has been pointed out and we needed to find a way to overcome this dilemma. In addition, recommendations went in the following directions.
First, financial support - whereas this would acknowledge the social value that cooperatives added to the society, for example, in terms of value distribution of equitable profits, and benefits with the local community in terms of stability of jobs, they generally relied on very low financial foundations, which in many cases make it difficult for them to accomplish their social goals. In this way, it was important to establish mechanisms that would enable them to get the financial support to carry out projects that could reinforce the virtual circle with their communities.
Second, the crucial role of research and education - the importance of establishing an international network of researchers and research centres to develop specific tools for starting the sector was highlighted. In addition, constituting internal foundations for cooperative promotion and education could enable the spread of information and foster new co-operators. These goals include establishing connections with policy researchers and projects to connect cooperatives globally.
Finally, on the relationship between cooperatives and their identity with digitalisation, she said, whereas digitalisation and technology had imposed great difficulties for large proportion of the labour force, cooperatives were able to resist and grounded in their identity, cooperatives have developed responses to platform capitalism-based exploitation of gig workers. In this way, she concluded platform cooperatives had developed mechanisms for reducing exploitation through employment securities, and more attention to these experiences was needed.
Cooperative Global Commitment
Mr. Paul Kang presented his reading of this thematic line and informed about four sessions that were organized in relation to Cooperatives’ Global Commitment. The key message he said, was that cooperatives should assume more responsibilities at the local and global levels and take them down to local actions. Case studies were presented that showed cooperatives contributed to environmental protection and speakers mentioned cooperatives should be involved displaying leadership pay more attention to climate issues. He added there was a proposal to add a principle on the environment either by adding text to the 7th Cooperative Principle or as a separate 8th principle.
He continued cooperatives should include peace building and post conflict, rebuilding and promoting dignity in their goals and purposes. Cooperatives were already participating in peace-building by promoting socio-economic cohesion and peace was a by-product of cooperatives’ way of doing businesses and community building. He said presenters agreed that the power of communities could become a tool or engine to reinforce the cooperative identity and that, the way cooperatives understood communities could make a difference and a wider view on what a “community” is, could create new opportunities by promoting social causes such as Human Rights as cooperatives built local communities and promoted territorial cooperation. He continued cooperative models could enhance cooperatives’ values and identity reinforcing into building more social capital. Recent global challenges created newer goals to answer community needs and to explore the benefits of collaborating together.
Cooperative Identity and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
In the last session, he said, panellists explained cooperatives should be involved in mutual aid and social networks, and that producers and consumers could get together to build stronger networks, promoting better opportunities, providing more jobs. New ideas for new forms of cooperatives should be encouraged to meet new challenges. In addition, at the global level, social economy could be applied to official development assistance. He concluded that cooperatives should take more risks and assume more responsibilities on environments in territorial cooperation, peace building and other social causes, and that, cooperatives could contribute in building local communities that met social challenges, especially in the post Covid-19 era; taking more responsibility could lead to more opportunities by widening the cooperatives’ identity, and widening the identity and strengthening the identity could go together, and this way, cooperatives could widen local and global leadership.
Dr. Maria José Ruiz-Rivera presented the reading from this thematic line and informed that all participants highlighted the contribution of cooperatives and the broader social and solidarity economy in promoting Decent Work, Social Justice, and the Sustainable Development Goals agenda. She said, all sessions brought together researchers and practitioners who reflected on their empirical studies, historical perspectives, legal and policy frameworks, measurement platforms, and the potential of cooperatives in meeting the SDGs. She continued that some researchers noticed that the SDGs really acknowledged the central role of solidarity in meeting Decent Work and job quality. However, some participants pointed out that the recognition of the cooperatives’ action towards the SDGs remained insufficient in different geographical contexts. Hence, an overall strategy was needed. Cooperatives could incorporate the SDGs into their economic and social strategies. In addition solidarity as an aspect of the cooperative identity and as one of its pillars, should be reinforced as an ethical political system which might allow cooperative members to overcome market rationale and become agents of political action. Moreover, through the different sessions, it was highlighted that cooperatives often faced challenges from operating in an environment not suited to their needs. This challenge involved critical aspects such as accounting and accountability activities, which could not be understood in a language focusing on market driven firms and the needs of their investors. Empirical studies presented during the different sessions supported this and showed the necessity of developing at a global level index and metrics for and by cooperatives as firmly pointed out during Nazik Beishenaly’s presentation. These metrics, she continued, should capture the contribution of cooperatives toward SDGs for example, in granting Decent Work. The fewer the metrics the better, was stated in Eric Bidet’s presentation. What was crucial was to create instruments that adapted better towards showing the contributions of cooperatives to the SDGs and to distinguish these organisations from for-profit businesses. Therefore, there was a need for accounting and accountability for cooperative purposes based on a more holistic framework of accounting which aligned financial accounting with social and environmental impact. In addition, what emerged in many discussions such as Mirta Vuotto’s presentation, was an agreement on the need to have a statistical resources on cooperatives that ensured the homogeneity of the records including their continuity and comparability. During Sonia Novkovic’s presentation, cooperatives were invited to incorporate digitalisation and work along with platforms as an innovative form of cooperation.
To conclude, she said, the cooperative movement must reinforce dialogues with policymakers with the aim of transforming business as usual, and as was stated during Ilcheong Yi’s session, for this, inclusive public policies were necessary. Finally, she asked what was the way forward? What could be done to account better for cooperative purposes? The cooperative movement could engage in alliances with other social movements to align economic activities with social and environmental values on the quest for meeting the SDGs.
In summary, Prof. Ann Hoyt thanked all the rapporteurs of the Research Conference and pointed out major topics that came up several times during the reporting. She said the sessions talked about providing financial support, particularly for education and for development, supporting research and education and creating through the research, effective metrics for identifying the cooperatives’ contributions to their communities. The panels talked about environmental implications of cooperatives and the need for cooperatives to address the climate issues that the entire world faces and to work to build peace and to be involved in mutual aid and social networks and working with other organisations that may not be cooperatives but share our values.
She concluded this part of the session by saying that the Research Conference presenters respected and supported the cooperative identity, but there was an awareness that the cooperative identity needed to be adaptive to the new changes that were occurring around, and for co-operators of the world, to be adaptive to those changes and to encourage widespread participation in discussing our core identity.
The 3rd International Forum on Cooperative Law
Ann Hoyt then invited Prof. Hagen Henrÿ to report on behalf of the presenters of the 3rd International Forum on Cooperative Law.
Prof. Hagen Henrÿ informed that the Forum on Cooperative Law was themed on Identity of cooperatives and the harmonisation of cooperatives laws - match for mismatch? He said the Forum was divided into six sessions and 33 persons made presentations and many more joined online. He continued that the presentations and discussions revolved around two topics. 1.) the relationship between cooperative identity and cooperative law and 2) the harmonisation of cooperative laws and cooperative identity. He then explained the relationship between cooperative identity and law. He provided some preliminary remarks by stating there was a large consensus on that relationship, and that the Forum understood the cooperative identity as the one constituted by the three elements of the ICA statement on the Cooperative Identity – the definition, the values and the principles, and underlined that the three elements were not loosely enumerated in the statement, but that there was an epistemological link between the three and that was very, very important. He continued that new technologies, the factors of globalisation, and many other things added to the question of what the cooperative identity was in the real world of today, and that lawyers had to look at the discussion with a shift from the member and shareholder value to a general stakeholder value, that enterprises were supposed to produce.
He added that the ICA statement was legally binding for the members of the ICA and indirectly for the members of those members. He supported his claim with two reasons (1) the cooperatives were responsible themselves to live the ICA principles through their statutes and through practice, and (2) the aspect that is in living and practising the principles by the cooperatives had an influence on the question of whether there was an emerging notion of public international cooperative law.
He said, for lawyers, cooperative law existed because of the cooperative identity, and therefore the latter was of paramount importance, and secondly, lawyers needed to distinguish cooperatives within the wider debate of the social economy, and thirdly, a diverse world of enterprises was needed and that meant needing different identities. The reason for this need was that diversity was a source of development, and therefore a source of sustainable development. He also reminded the house to not disregard the self-identification of cooperatives by the large number of cooperatives and cooperators around the world who participated and adopted the Statement in 1995, which, he continued, the world had to recognise. He also noted there was a gap in the wider legal world in understanding the bridge between this fact of self-identification and legal rules. He further added that the ICA statement had gained legal relevance beyond the Statement itself for the members because there were two texts at the international level –the 2001 UN Guidelines aimed at creating a Supportive Environment for the Development of Cooperatives, which refers to the ICA statement, and, ILO Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 (No. 193) which integrated almost word by word, the ICA statement into the text which recommended States to translate the cooperative values and principles into law.
He said there was large consensus on what was meant by cooperative law as not only the law on cooperatives but the wider legal system - any laws and regulations that have an impact on either the organisation or the functioning, the operations of cooperatives and, also to include issues of implementation of law-making and of the interpretation of the law, and this in the many different legal traditions where cooperatives were present. Additionally, it was not only the law for cooperatives but also about law on cooperatives. He added that there was no consensus on whether the ICA principles were legally binding on legislators, and that there were different opinions. He said that the gap between the principles on one side and legal rules which are meant to be precise, can be filled. He said it was interesting that irrespective of what people thought about the issue, all presenters referred to the cooperative principles when they talked about cooperative law and an increasing number of national and regional laws refer to the principles in a not always a very clear way, and ICA would have to work on it to make things clearer. He added that the fact remained that there was a clear tendency in new laws and amendments to make a clear reference to the cooperative principles of the ICA. All presenters found that most cooperative laws, did not sufficiently respect the cooperative principles to varying degree. He spoke about the phenomenon of companization, hybridisation, homogenisation, convergence, and that indicated that through law, the identity of cooperatives was either being set aside, or was slowly diluting, and the enterprise types were becoming a bit more like each other through law. At this point he raised the question, was there a relationship between the cooperative identity and law? He said in summing up that there was consensus to say yes, there was a relationship. It was not that the law would constitute the identity, but the law strengthened it and protected the identity. He said this came out especially in one presentation, where presenters looked at the relationship between law and identity, and started from the hypotheses that one did not need law to protect and to strengthen the identity. And the foreseeable result was that yes, one did! And, that had to do with the function of law in general.
He then spoke on the harmonisation of cooperative law. He asked whether the world needed to harmonise cooperative laws to strengthen the identity of cooperatives? And there were three further questions he raised: (1) What was to be harmonised? (2) Why? (3) And then how does one harmonise? In response, he said, harmonisation of cooperative laws was a fact, whether one wanted it or not, and the important thing was what one could do with that fact. He said there was a caveat to be to be issued about the notion of harmonisation, which covered a wide variety of different issues - the different types of approximation of varying identities from the unification of laws to loosely coordinated harmonization. Then, there was international and regional harmonisation, and there was intra-national harmonisation, which had seemed to be the more relevant case.
He clarified that nobody was proposing a uniform law for cooperatives. The question was how the harmonization of the interpretation of the cooperative principles can be achieved. He then presented some recommendations for the Congress:
- Integrate into the thinking on the cooperative identity the issue of law,
- Recognize that the ICA statement is legally binding on Member Organizations.
- Use the resources the ICA has through Director of Legislation, Santosh Kumar and the ICA Cooperative Law Committee.
- Act in on the question of integrating the issue of cooperative law into the training, into the creating new lawyers.
- Overcome the sectoral divide in terms of attaching this divide to sectoral laws, which divided the thinking on cooperative law.
Prof. Ann Hoyt thanked Prof. Henrÿ, and invited Prof. Sonja Novkovic to make her concluding remarks.
Prof. Novkovic said the Conference was rich with researchers on the panels and also saw practitioner inputs She said one of the panels talked about operationalizing the cooperative identity as well. She said that was important and necessary to actually understand how the business, the cooperative model of enterprise with its features captured by the statement, actually played into the business advantage. She recollected the discussions from the preceding session on the ICA International Cooperative Entrepreneurship Think Tank where the importance for cooperatives to understand where they had a business advantage was discussed. She informed that there were rich conversations about operationalisation of the cooperative identity, what it meant and how the Statement were not just words, but instead could actually be turned into tools in the business world. She spoke about the panels about conversions and work, and that researchers were looking at what the necessary conditions were to convert businesses small businesses into cooperatives. She then spoke about the discussions on digitisation and data.
In conclusion she conveyed the following message - How to inform the Congress to maximise the opportunity to discuss the deepening of the identity? There were clear calls for leadership on climate action. It was not just about understanding the cooperative model as the values-based model that had as by-product, a positive impact in the context of SDGs, but it was really about the need to show leadership on climate and put that at the forefront of the model. She said although many cooperatives were thinking about it but there was some frustration in the research community which was perceived as cooperatives lacking leadership. She encouraged the conversations in the Congress to think about how the cooperatives could position themselves into that space, and that the positioning included measurement and reporting. She recollected the panels which discussed ESG and SDG framework, and that there was a call to go beyond SDGs, which she said was a package everyone agreed with but she said if one were to look at them minutely, many did not fit the values cooperatives espoused. She added, it was important to be critical where criticism was needed, and to challenge the ESG framework and to level the playing field in the sense that cooperatives needed to show leadership in the measurement frameworks and influence global efforts to measure what mattered. She also said, many of the presenters and researchers sat on different panels and forms that did the work on measurement and reporting. She said a conversation with the movement on where this could be taken, was needed. Lastly, she said the Conference had called for a forum to exchange experiences in the area of climate change and measurement and impact measurement and reporting because there were many efforts being made by cooperatives on the ground. She said the platforms that were engaged on measurement and reporting on sustainability impact were reinventing the wheel and were looking for measurements and benchmarks and targets that that were relevant in a particular context. She said co-operators and researchers on cooperatives must engage with each other and see who was doing what, and therefore a forum was necessary. She said researchers were hoping that the UN Research Institute for Social Development would partner and that they were going to have that forum and an opportunity to meet and discuss what's being done for cooperatives and by cooperatives in this in the area of climate action and sustainable development. She ended with a call for cooperatives’ leadership on climate action.
Prof. Ann Hoyt thanked everyone on the panel for their contribution and for presenting valuable insights from the two preparatory research-based events. She reminded everyone that it was the first time that research and law conferences reported directly to a cooperative Congress give a precursor to the discussions that were coming up in the next few days. She said it was really important to recognise the contributions of researchers who examined the cooperative Identity and gave thoughtful presentations and had conversations ahead of the much longer conference, conversation and discussion among co-operators which would focus on the unique nature of cooperative businesses and the cooperative identity, which was based on moral and ethical principles, and guided by carefully developed operating principles.
She said there would be many additional opportunities to discuss these issues, discuss our shared cooperative identity and how to modernise it, to the challenges that we currently face throughout the world. And it was important that everyone present expressed to the co-operators at home, that this was an open discussion. There were no preconceived outcomes. The effort was dedicated to getting opinions from all over the world and as many as possible. She urged everyone to look for the upcoming opportunities and participate fully. She reminded that everyone’s voice was important. In finally, she urged everyone to review the Congress Discussion Paper - Examining our Cooperative Identity and encouraged all to distribute it in the local communities and local organisations. She said the Congress hoped to inspire co-operators to participate in the on-going discussions.